Jun 1st 2011, 00:00

Surely one of the great pleasures of life in the Cape is being able to feed an entire family, or group of friendS, with a huge Snoek bought for a few rand. Dawn Kennedy went to meet the fishermen from kalk bay who bring home the Snoek. It’s 2pm at Kalk Bay harbour and Kalkies’ second boat is emptying its catch for the day. there are few places where you will get a better sense of nature’s abundance. Slimy fish spew onto the concrete like silver coins. Women wearing overalls and Wellingtons haul the snoek, some of which reach up to their waists, onto stone slabs where they get gutting and cleaning. It’s visceral, bloody work and not for the squeamish. There something ancient about the scene. You can’t be in a hurry to buy fish. They can’t be caught to a schedule. Waiting around the harbour is part of the ritual. Frenzied schedules are forced aside as you slow down and smell the life aquatic.

George, the manager of Kalkies, probably the most legendary fish-and-chips shop in the region, flits in and out among the people like a fish darting among coral. I’d wager that Kalkies holds the world record for the most snoek eaten in a square metre. George tells me that he sells between 300 to 500 portions of snoek every day. He claims to go through three tonnes of snoek per week. at Kalkies, snoek sells for R38 and it’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu. It’s served deepfried, unless you pay an extra R5 to have it grilled. There are no frills in Kalkies – the tablecloths are plastic and coffee is served in polystyrene, but you won’t find fresher, tastier snoek in town: it comes directly off the establishment’s own fishing boats, into the deep fat fryer and onto the table, where most people prefer to eat it with their fingers rather than the supplied plastic knives and forks. Inside Kalkies people of all ages and backgrounds are enjoying snoek. snoek is full of treacherous bones, long and thin like embroidery needles, and parents pick the bones off and pass chunks of flesh to their children, the youngest of whom looks about 6 months old.

Beside them, a table of elders have cracked open a bottle of wine and are sipping Chardonnay with their snoek. At another table, a couple eat in comfortable, familiar silence. Outside, two fishermen, Rudewaan Salie (31) and Winie Edwards (40), clean their tackle, washing their lines with seawater, stretching them out to remove any kinks or knots. they are attached to their own equipment, which they treat with care. They’re superstitious about sharing, believing that they can only be lucky with their own tackle. Every morning at 1am, the alarm wakes them and they leave their homes to walk in the dark down to the harbour. the skipper fetches them at around 3am and then they set off into the inky black ocean. The relationships between the fishermen and boat owners appear to be harmonious and straightforward. the owner supplies the boat, the fishermen come with their own fishing equipment, and the catch is monitored by the skipper and divided equally between boat owner and fishermen. Everyone seems happy.

The hand-line fishing boats are known as chakkies – thanks to the chak chak noise the diesel engine makes as it goes out to sea. There are places for 12 men in each boat, marked with small wooden mats for them to cut their bait on. To track down the whereabouts of the snoek, they rely on rumour and reports from the ski boats, which, with their 250 HP engines can reach the snoek runs much faster than the traditional diesel boats. With a combination of fast boats and cell phone communication, these boats, often bought by retired men with no fishing background, can rip up and down the coast, cleaning up the snoek shoals. As fishermen can earn much more on these boats, it makes it harder for skippers of traditional boats to get a crew together.

Occasionally, snoek can be spotted jumping out of the water, but they can also been seen underwater using what is called a “fish finder”, a piece of sonar equipment that shows the presence of fish on a monitor. Snoek appears as a thin line, others as dots or dashes. Sardines and pike are used as bait to catch snoek. The life of a hand-line fisherman is not easy. They earn according to how much they catch. The fishermen get no pension fund, no medical aid, and no sick leave. There are no quotas, or subsidies. They work 12-hour days, often for seven days a week. The price of fish fluctuates more than the price of the dollar. A fisherman requires luck, skill and strength. A good skipper helps. With the entrepreneurial skill of a stockbroker, he will time the market, calling the harbour to find out the price of the fish. If few fish have been caught that day, the price might be high and he could decide to race home and cash in his small catch for a high price. However, if the snoek are running, they will pull them in until the last minute.

An average snoek fisherman will catch 80–120 when they are running. A superb one can catch 200 snoek in one day. This is where strength comes in. “It’s not easy to catch a snoek,” says Wini, who is wiry like a whip. “You can put any man on this boat and he won’t catch one. You have to be strong, but I’ve seen men built like rugby players that can’t pull a snoek in. Some days we earn R50, others R1000.” The fisherman’s relationship to weather is intimate. There’s no shade or shelter on the boat and he is exposed to the elements – sun, wind and rain touch his skin, the cold penetrates his bones. It’s a very rare occasion when weather stops Kalkies’ boats going out.
These vessels routinely brave the coldest, stormiest weather. And yet, Rudewaan and Wini are happy men. They are both fourth generation fishermen.

Wini explains, “It’s in your blood. You feel good about yourself when you go home. I wouldn’t do nothing else.” Wini says that the greatest reward in the job is “being able to put some money in my wife’s hand and say, ‘Here bokkie, I made something for you’.” Rudewaan agrees: “The worst part of their job is when they return empty-handed. Then their wives will compare them to other more successful men and complain that the men took them from their mammy’s house to treat them so badly.” But in truth, the woman’s lot is not so bad. The fishermen’s wives don’t hang out at the harbour and they certainly don’t clean the fish – women from outside the area, from Athlone and Mitchell’s Plain, come to do that. The men prize their wives dearly. “They are our luck and our inspiration.” Snoek is another thing they love.

“Snoek is something we can eat every day,” says Winie “I put chicken aside for snoek,” Rudewaan agrees. Asked about how they like it cooked, the men go into raptures. They both agree that cooked at home is best. Rudewaan opts for deep fried, but quickly changes his mind when Winie proposes that baked is best, adding that he loves it cooked with tomatoes.“And onions, with green peppers,” adds Rudewaan, concluding: “A fisherman who says he went to bed hungry is not a fisherman – there’s plenty of fish in the ocean.” Only five boats in Kalk Bay harbour have the commercial hand-line fishing licences needed to catch snoek. Don’t imagine fishermen are free to roam the open seas. There is more bureaucracy on the ocean than on the highway. “It’s red tape, lady,” laments JJ, who was born in 1938. Pulling out a plastic folder filled with neatly laminated certificates, he shows me the documents that he needs to ply his trade. First, there’s the safety certificate.

Each boat must have a tracking device (which costs R6100 to purchase and a monthly fee of R155 to maintain). Then there’s the annual servicing of the lifeboat (R5300), not to mention the lifejacket, the radio licence and the man who swings the compass. Then there are fire extinguishers, smoke bombs, first-aid kits and various types of flairs. The most contentious certificate is the fishing licence, which has caused rifts and animosity in the community. A few years ago it was decided that fishermen could only hold either a crayfish licence or a hand-line licence. Handline fishermen who for generations had supplemented their income with crayfish, lost a valuable income stream. When JJ was growing up, everyone around him was a fisherman and he never had any thought of being anything else.

He started fishing when he was 15, and now he’s a skipper and owns a boat. Whereas the Kalkies boats go out whatever the weather, JJ is more cautious: “Why must I go out in a storm? One day won’t get you richer but your boat is getting sore all the time.” JJ is proud of his fishing heritage. His father had eight brothers and he tells me they were “outstanding fishermen – the Muhammad Alis of fishing”. The boxing simile is apt because snoek put up such a fight when they are caught. To restrain them, fishermen trap them under their armpits. They used to kill them by knocking them on the head with a wooden block, until 80 years ago, when a stranger came to crew on JJ’s grandfather’s boat, Little Lizzie, and did an extraordinary thing. After he tucked the snoek under his armpit, he killed it by placing his left thumb in its left eyeball and his right hand under its right gill and turning its neck sharply to the left. This gives the fish such a shock that all his scales fall off, making the catch easier to clean. If the snoek gets away, his scales will re-grow.

Nowadays everybody turns the neck. Reflecting on his life, JJ says, “We grew up poor, but appreciated everything that we had. The fresh air kept me healthy and there was food every day. It was a very successful life.”

Snoek tips:

To know whether a snoek is good to buy, when it is flaked, press your finger on it. If your finger sinks in, say you’re just browsing. When you buy a snoek, make sure the hawkers rub coarse salt onto it to keep it fresh, then remember to rinse the salt off when you get home.

Alison’s fish cakes:

JJ’s wife Alison shares the secret of her husband’s favourite fish dish.

medium-sized snoek
2 slices stale bread
2 eggs
1 grated onion
ground nutmeg
generous pinch of fish masala

Boil the snoek, discard the bones. Mix in two slices of stale bread that have been soaked in
water – one brown, one white. Mix remaining ingredients together, the mix should be firm and
hold together. Form into balls and flatten into patties. To cook, heat 1cm of sunflower oil in a frying pan. Fry the fish until caramel brown on each side. Serve with peach chutney.

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